Buying the same horse twice
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
After a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang in March 2018, Chung Eui-yong, national security advisor to President Moon Jae-in, announced that Kim “has made clear his intention for denuclearization and agreed to hold an inter-Korean summit.” Chung went on to announce that Kim was willing to agree to a North-U.S. summit. Expectations were sanguine that Pyongyang would soon give up nuclear weapons and open up to the outside world.
A former senior official who was deeply involved in negotiations with North Korea, however, cautioned against hasty optimism. “The doors to the truth have not been opened yet,” he said, citing an incident from June 2008. At that time, North Korea demolished the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear plant as part of a six-party agreement to disable the facility in North Korea. The world watched the event via CNN’s live coverage. Following that event, hardliners in Washington muted their skepticism about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up nuclear arms. As North Korea cannot operate a reactor and produce weapons-grade nuclear materials without a cooling tower, their change of attitude was understandable.
But the denuclearization negotiations failed to progress any further after it hit the predictable obstacle of verification. North Korea walked away from the six-party talks and reactivated the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Satellite images later showed that North Korea was using water from the nearby Kuryong River as cooling water instead of using the cooling tower. Pyongyang had prepared a plan to reactivate the facility and staged the demolition as a pure piece of theater.
U.S. officials who participated in the negotiations must have been extremely disappointed. Sung Kim, who was named Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Joe Biden administration, witnessed the demolition of the cooling tower in Yongbyon.
Calling the event a “cheat,” the former Korean official said, “You cannot trust North Korea until a truly irreversible action is taken by the country.”
During the Obama administration, officials in charge of North Korean policy repeatedly employed the bromide, “Don’t buy the same horse twice.” Biden and his new security aides in Washington have lived through the Obama administration. They treat Donald Trump’s summit with Kim as a “reality show” that only bought North Korea time and helped strengthen Kim’s status, largely thanks to their experiences during the Obama administration.
Two things became clearer in the New Year. One is North Korea’s policy to improve its nuclear capabilities as it declared through the Workers’ Party Congress at the beginning of the year. Another is the Moon Jae-in administration’s blind belief that the North is still willing to denuclearize. In a statement issued after the party Congress, North Korea mentioned “nuclear reinforcements” 36 times without making any mention of “denuclearization.”
And yet, Moon and new Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong repeatedly said North Korea has a clear intention to denuclearize. They have no actual grounds to believe this idea other than what Chung heard from Kim in 2018. That is a textbook definition of buying the same horse twice. Seoul and Washington are destined to disagree.
Even a monthly magazine published by China’s Foreign Ministry said North Korea’s intention to possess nuclear weapons has become more obvious than ever, concluding that the past three years of U.S. diplomacy with the North lost a lot and gained very little. This is the international community’s common sense conclusion.
Dialogue is an art that makes the impossible possible. You must persuade continuously and sometimes pressure harshly to make someone do something. It won’t work if you trust someone’s promise without strategic thinking based on cold reality. We cannot leave the fate of this country to such vain trust. The Moon administration must not forget another old bromide that says, “When you are too kind, people will deceive you. When a horse is too docile, a person will ride it.”